Container Gardening ~ 6 Take Aways From My 5-Week UCLA Extension Course

Collage of treeThe new house has no available dirt to dig and plant. What we have are decent sized patios, balconies, and a rooftop terrace.  Thatzalotta square footage that still needs landscaping. Suddenly, our potted plants looked pitiful to me.  Hooray!  The UCLA Extension summer series offered what I really needed – a course in Container Gardening.

Smug little me – homeowner for decades —  thought I knew sooo much, but DANG, great class!  Here are some takeaways I want to share:

  1. Plants eat dirt
  2. You need a machete
  3. Holes, screens, feet
  4. Thriller, filler and spiller
  5. LGM
  6. Cluster


Revelation #1 – plants don’t sink because the soil is compacting.  They are eating the nutrients, leaving behind just dirt. DON’T THROW POTTING MIX ON TOP.  The plant should be “repurposed” – taken out, fresh potting mix into the bottom, tamped down, root ball plant back on top, more potting mix around the sides and TUCK, TUCK, TUCK that dirt down tight.  Not like cement, however.  Roots need a little air.  Then water deeply.

We bought a Japanese Maple from our next door neighbors who were moving.  Once sitting in class, it was obvious this needed to be my first project – “repurposing” the tree.  I followed teacher’s instructions – including the machete trick (below) – and an hour into the job realized this heavy sucker was going to require he-man Larry to help me pop it out.  We looked like Lucy and Ricky wrestling with it (because the pot was cracked, it was more challenging to hoist it without shoving against the pot).  But we did it.  It took 1 1/2 big bags of fresh potting mix to refresh (see that, below, too).


If you are a regular of Worth The Whisk, I know you like to bake. So consider how you get a stubborn cake layer out of a pan, you run a sharp knife around the edge. Containers?? Machete, baby. $20 at the Army-Navy store (I got mine on E-bay).  It isn’t as sharp as a Cutco knife, but it really DOES shove down between the dirt and pot edge efficiently.  Took lots of trips around the pot, plus digging away the dirt, to hit the very bottom.  Those roots were loathe to let go.

And my Foxgloves?  A Christmas present years ago from Larry, I never dig in dirt without them.  Washing machine after each use, super soft and snug instead of floppy like other gloves.


Containers need drain holes.  Cover the holes with a little square of old window screen to keep pill bugs, pincher bugs and spiders out.  Don’t bother doing little pebbles or styrofoam peanuts. Use screen.

Plants don’t like their feet to always be wet (I’m quoting Teacher).  Put pots on feet.  As luck would have it, I found boxes of leftover bullnose tiles from the house construction. PERFECT feet. If you fear your pots will stain the patio, then put feet under the pots inside dishes.


ONE thing in the pot?  Oh, come now.  Visualize THREE.  Something tall like a lemon tree (the thriller), then something short but grows upwards (lavender as filler, perhaps) and something that eventually pours over the edge (the spiller – maybe ivy).  MUCH better.

Shhh…  I spied a hillside nearby that was sprouting creeping rosemary, so I collected a handful of tiny extras.  No harm.

Don’t forget edibles!  Basil, pepper plants, lettuce, strawberries, tomatoes.  The collection in your container should all require the same amount of water, so don’t be surprised if you realize the need to move things from one container to another.

Fish Emulsion is Teacher’s only fertilizer recommendation.  No to Miracle Grow.  No to others.  Twice a year, use Fish Emulsion at half strength to the bottle instructions.

LGM – Your New Potting Mix

Teacher was adamant. Don’t buy ANY OTHER potting mix than LGM brand.  For soil reasons, for sustainability reasons, for small business reasons.  And make sure you read the yellow bag label to not make the mistake of buying Kellogg brand.  This huge bag was $10 at a local nursery. You won’t find it at gigantic gardening stores. Apparently, it is the soil of choice for growing marijuana.


Instead of lining a wall with a row of pots, make groupings.  One tall, two medium, one or two short.  Elbow room between groupings.  Very eye appealing.  And add a little humor and character.

So here is our tree as we go into autumn (below).  The Japanese maple wasn’t a happy camper when we first acquired her; her leaves are crispy burnt.  I will soon prune her to reshape (we turned the pot so the crack was against the wall, and turned the tree to have her best side forward).  Next spring, come back here and I will post what she looks like!


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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Worth The Whisk April 24, 2017 at 1:38 pm

Hi John, unfortunately this class was a few years ago now. So I dont recall the teacher’s name. He highly recommended the LGM because it wasn’t a large, questionable company (i.e. he hated MiracleGrow fertilizer for that reason). He was sort of a hippie, and I simply took his word for it. My containers on our patio still are remarkable.

2 John April 21, 2017 at 7:10 am

My wife is looking to take a class like this. Who was the teacher? What was it about LGM that made him speak so highly of it?

3 Barbara June 2, 2014 at 4:44 pm

This is very valuable information. Thanks for sharing! I’ve struggled with container gardening for a long time but I’d like to try again after reading these tips.

4 Christina @ChristinasCucina August 20, 2013 at 9:10 pm

OMG, what timing! I just added dirt and mulch to my potted kumquat THIS MORNING! Oops! However, I can still buy the LGM brand of soil and fish emulsion for the rest of my pots. Thanks for the great synopsis of the class highlights, Patty!

5 Lynne @ CookandBeMerry August 20, 2013 at 7:40 pm

Wow, great post. Thanks for the brand names and how-to. I’m off to the garden store!

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